One thing you can count on in the summertime is small town festivals. Just about every town has a version of the traditional rural American “harvest festival”, with all the amenities of any carnival – fried food, rides, beer or wine made from whatever fruit or vegetable the festival is named after, and, in many communities, some quality Fair-Circuit caliber concert acts. Usually these are the artists that are on the way down in their careers, or, they have found a good niche for themselves where they can still pull a good pay guarantee, and draw a large crowd, because more often than not these small town festival concerts are free, or included with a minimal entrance fee to the carnival itself.
Such was the case this previous weekend when I caught two such rock shows: 80's Hair Metal Band Warrant, performing at the Obetz Zucchini Festival (yes, Zucchini, and yes, they have Zucchini beer, which I didn't try, so don't ask me what that's like); and Classic Rock radio stalwarts Blue Öyster Cult, who were performing in my hometown of Portsmouth, Ohio, at the city's annual River Days Festival.
The Zucchini Fest concerts are held at Fortress Obetz, a large high-school size stadium. In years past, artists like Ted Nugent and Brett Michaels, lead vocalist of 80's Glam band Poison, have literally packed the place. Ted's crowd in particular was extremely impressive, with an audience size that rivaled the daily attendance of the long-running Rock On The Range Festival, held at Columbus Crew Soccer Stadium. Unfortunately for Warrant, they didn't fare so well as a headline draw. The audience was of a respectable size, if the show had been held at a much smaller venue. But the few hundred people crowded in front of the stage looked like dozens in the big “fortress.” Oddly enough, one reason that the crowd may have been light is because the aforementioned Uncle Ted was also playing in town on Friday night, so the hard rockers had to make a choice, with only the cheapskates like me choosing Obetz.
The band, to their credit as professionals, showed no signs of being discouraged by the smallish horde. They performed all their big 80's hits with a fire and energy that rivals much younger bands plying their trade on the live scene today. They were tight, sounded great, the audience sang along with the songs, and couples even slow danced to the big ballads as everyone relived their 80's glory days. What Warrant has working against them is the fact that their primary songwriter and original front-man, Jani Lane, passed away in 2011. He was no longer with the band at that time, having squandered many opportunities due to his battles with alcoholism and other substance abuse issues. Current lead vocalist Robert Mason, to Warrant's benefit, is a true ringer. Formally of Lynch Mob and, more infamously, the “man behind the curtain” during one now urban-legendary Ozzy Osbourne tour, he is about as good a singer and front-man as any band of that era could hope for.
And sadly, I don't think that all that many people in Obetz Friday night knew, or cared, that it wasn't Jani up there singing his own songs. In my own case, I never saw the original lineup of Warrant, as I was an “anti-poser” kid when they had their run. But I did meet Jani once at a nightclub in Columbus called Mean Mr. Mustards. It was after Warrant had played a headlining set at the Alrosa Villa, and apparently someone from the audience let them know about this cool bar that played hard rock & metal music on Sunday nights, so that's where the after-party wound up. As a college dive bar of repute in that day, Mustard's was known for serving buckets of beer. And I'm not talking about what they call buckets of beer in bars today – 4 or 5 bottled beers in a small bucket of ice – no, I'm talking about a big plastic bucket, just like the kind you mop your floor or wash your car with, FILLED WITH DRAFT BEER. And you and all your friends all filled your own cups using the same dirty plastic cup floating on top of the swill. It was a great bargain for broke college kids, but here was this Rock Star losing his shit over the fact that you could drink from a bucket. He kept offering everyone some of his, but we were mostly like, “we do this every week dude”. For better or worse, that's my memory of Jani Lane.
Blue Öyster Cult - on the other hand - has been a longtime favorite band of mine. I first became aware of them the same way I became aware of many big rock acts of the 70's...through my older brother's vinyl record collection. The album covers captivated me, with geometrical patterns, strange figures in robes, and cryptic symbols galore. The band even had it's own custom symbol, a combination of a cross and a question mark...whoah. They were truly “cultish” and seemed forbidden to my Catholic sensibilities. In the early days of MTV, back when they actually played music videos, the B.Ö.C. song “Burnin' For You” was a staple. I loved that video, with the band performing in front of a burning car, and guitarist Eric Bloom's custom B.Ö.C.-symbol guitar. I loved the walking bass line so much that I once sat down and forced myself to learn it. To this day it's the only real bass lick that I know. I loved their horror and Sci-Fi themed songs like "Joan Crawford (Has Risen From The Grave)" and "Veteran Of The Psychic Wars."
I have seen them many times in concert, including one time where my best friend and I walked out of a heated college radio station staff meeting that was dragging on too long with him uttering the words “You all can do what you want, we're going to see B.Ö.C!”, leaving the rest of our colleagues to argue amongst themselves about whatever it was we were arguing over before we took off for the show.
This time they were headlining my hometown's own yearly fest, Portsmouth River Days. River Days is held in the southern Ohio city every Labor Day weekend, and features the usual carnival attractions; rides; in the case of this particular fest, boat races on the river; and of course, entertainment. The headlining acts are always the usual circuit-runners. In years past acts such as Kansas, The Little River Band, and the Charlie Daniels Band have graced the small amphitheater stage on the banks of the Ohio River. When Cult was scheduled as this year's headliner, I made a point of planning a trip down to the Port city to see the show along with family and old friends. I donned my “More Cowbell” t-shirt (yes, I was going to be “that guy”), and along with my better-half, we made the two-hour drive down US Route 23 to Portsmouth in the mid- afternoon, meeting up with some of my family, and heading down to the river bank to meet friends and see the show.
My sister had procured VIP wristbands for our party of four, so we got to go inside a large tent set up next to the stage where we ate free pizza, wings, and drink all the water and soda we wanted, and had seats to watch the show from stage right. Unfortunately, someone should have asked the band's guitar tech to set up the spare guitars and tuning station a little further upstage, as he completely blocked the view of the main stage area. We could see the drummer, and we could see the guys up front when they stepped up to the mics to sing, but otherwise if they were walking around the stage jamming, our view was obstructed. To the credit of the VIP's gathered in the tent, no one really seemed to mind, as everyone stood and danced and sang along.
The band delivered their usual set of hits and favored deep cuts, along with some improv jamming and soloing courtesy of original lead guitarist and vocalist Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser. Co-lead vocalist, guitarist, keyboardist, and band front-man Eric Bloom provides the MC duties to this day, with the pair being the only original members in the current lineup. The Ohio River was the perfect setting for the Cult staple “Godzilla”, as Bloom delivered his usual stage rap about the legendary beast, tailored to fit the evening's locale. “Can you see it RISING UP FROM THE RIVER?!?” he asked the crowd of thousands who had filled the riverbank. “What is it? WHO is it?” “GODZILLA!” roared the fine folks of P-town. The boys then dutifully stomped through the classic rock staple.
After some instrumental jamming and a guitar solo from Buck Dharma, the moment that many people had been waiting on finally arrived. It was “cowbell time” as the band launched into their biggest hit, “(Don't Fear) The Reaper”, made famous for a second time in their career by the now legendary Christopher Walken/Will Farrell “More Cowbell” sketch on Saturday Night Live. While I do not begrudge the band their good fortune at striking gold and cashing in on their Pop Culture fame, the fans who only care about that one song - to the point of bringing THEIR OWN COWBELLS to the show - are a bit much. Several by-now inebriated patrons in the VIP section began to play along, and not a one of them could keep the beat. The cacaphony was almost hypnotizing in it's complete disregard for the song being played onstage.
A friend of mine said later that he would bet that B.Ö.C. hates that SNL skit, because of all the self-entitled fans who now want to be “Gene” (Farrell's cowbell-playing character in the sketch) and be a part of the show. He believes “More Cowbell” has become the new “Play Freebird!” While he may be correct, I argued that the band has definitely benefited from it, cashing in on the increased Pop Culture visibility and giving their live career an added boost late in what has been a long game for them. Every t-shirt they sell today is emblazoned with “More Cowbell” on the back. They know where their bread is buttered.
After "Reaper" the band left left the stage (and thankfully the cowbells went back under the chairs), returning to play an encore of “Cities On Flame With Rock And Roll” for the now-dwindling audience. (“Reaper's done, I'm outta here Bubba!”) The show was through, goodbyes were said, and we escaped into the night like a character in a B.Ö.C. song, heading north on Ohio Route 104 and back to Columbus. It was a fun daytrip back to the hometown.…to the same riverbank where I drank beer underage, played rock songs on the car stereo at full-volume, and dreamed of escaping the small town life. I eventually did that, but these days I'd just as soon escape the big city life and return to small town living. As long as the town I wind up in has a cool festival with a once-was and still-kicking-it Rock Act, I think I'd be alright.